Abe Government's Admission of Flaws in Henoko Base Construction Plan Challenges the Integrity of U.S. and International Institutions

Abe Government's Reluctant Admission
© Asahi Shimbun
After a long silence, the Abe government finally admits that the construction of a U.S. military base at Henoko-Oura Bay in Okinawa requires significant changes to the original land reclamation plan (see Asahi Shimbun). Parts of the seafloor of the construction site have proven to be extremely fragile, or mayonnaise-like condition. To solidify the seafloor to support a functional airport, a "sand compaction pile method" needs to be carried out (see this video for sand compaction pile method). That is, casing piles will be driven into the seafloor as deep as 60 meters (or 90 meters below the water surface) and the piles will be filled from the top with sand and other compacting materials. Then, the piles are removed slowly leaving the compacting materials in the form of a pillar thus solidifying the seafloor. With this procedure, 76,000 sand pillars will be placed in the seafloor (see Ryukyu Shimpo). 

The government’s admission has critical implications not only for the Japanese government itself but also for the U.S. and international institutions.

Japanese Government's Pretense: No Adverse Impacts on the Environment
The Abe government’s admission has put the government itself in a difficult situation.  

First, driving piles and putting 76,000 pillars into the seafloor are destined to cause tremendous impacts and irreversible changes to the environment of Henoko-Oura Bay, one of the most biodiversity-rich marine environments in the world (see Okinawa Prefectural Government). This presents a significant challenge to the Japanese government’s pretense that the construction and operation of the base do not create any adverse effects on the environment (so that base construction is legally allowed).  

The pretense was provided by the Okinawa Defense Bureau’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) (2012) which was vehemently criticized for numerous flaws by experts and environmental NGOs. The government’s admission is the latest blow to the tainted EIA and the government’s environmental policies concerning Henoko-Oura Bay. The EIA presented no information on the mayonnaise-like condition of the seafloor. 

Oura Bay and Base Construction (Feb. 3, 2019)
© H, Yoshikawa
Second, the proposed changes (or any change of this magnitude) to the original construction plan should necessitate a new environmental impact study and approval from local governments. Given that Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki was elected in a special gubernatorial election in September last year on his promise that he will fight the base construction, he is expected to deny any proposal for changes (see Ryukyu Shimpo).  His refusal will undoubtedly drag the entire base construction plan down, causing a halt or a long delay. 

Japanese Government Resorts to its Usual Tactics  
At this juncture, the Abe administration is downplaying the magnitude of its admission, and it insists that construction work continues no matter what. In fact, the Okinawa Defense Bureau is starting to build a new seawall in the area near the fragile seafloor (see The Japan Times), which many see as the government’s attempt to create a fait accompli and impressions that construction work has crossed the point of no return. 

It is clear that the Japanese government is resorting to its usual tactics. Throughout its reckless pushing of the construction plan, every time environmental issues came into light, the Japanese government managed to sweep them under its administrative rug. It prevented examination of the issues and kept intact the "no environmental impact" pretense while enabling construction work to move forward. 

Ryukyu Shimpo Extra Edition on
Prefectural Government's Revocation
of Land Reclamation Permit  
Most recently, for example, when the Okinawa prefectural government revoked in August 2018 the land reclamation permit for base construction on the grounds of serious environmental and civil engineering problems (see the Okinawa Prefectural Government's Revocation Documents in English), Keiichi Ishii, the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Technology, and Tourism came to subvert the revocation. The minister suspended the revocation claiming that it would cause negative effects on the U.S.-Japan alliance and make it difficult to eliminate the dangers posed by the Futenma base at its current location (see The Japan Times). The suspension allowed construction work to resume while completely stifling the environmental and technical issues raised in the revocation.  

Despite the Japanese government’s tactics, however, environmental issues never go away. New problems are emerging and old problems are coming back to haunt the Japanese government. 

U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Judicial System 
The Japanese government’s admission of the fragile seafloor and the need to drive piles to put 76,000 pillars to solidify it has far-reaching implications beyond Henoko-Oura Bay, Okinawa, and Japan. 

First of all, it challenges the claims made by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in the U.S. court and could test the integrity of the U.S. judicial system as a whole. 

In August 2018, the U.S. Federal District Court of Northern California ruled in favor of the DoD (the defendant) (see the Court Ruling) against the coalition of civil society members from Okinawa, Japanese and U.S. (the plaintiffs)  fought under the U.S. National Historic Preservation Act. The Court accepted the DoD’s claims that prior to the start of base construction work, the DoD conducted a proper study regarding possible impacts of the construction and operation of the base on the dugong, manatee-like marine mammal, internationally endangered species, Japan’s Natural Monument, and Okinawa’s cultural icon. The court also accepted the DoD’s 2014 conclusion that the base will have no adverse impact on the dugong. It was this conclusion that finally allowed base construction work to start in July 2014.   

© The Ministry of the Environment
Now the Japanese government’s admission brings into question the validity of DoD’s claims because the DoD heavily relied upon the Okinawa Defense Bureau’s EIA in conducting its study and reaching to the no adverse impact conclusion. As discussed above, the EIA did not include information on the fragile seafloor and the need to driving piles to put 76,000 pillars in the Dugong habitat.

More importantly, the fact that the DoD did not have the information puts the US court system into a complicated situation as the case is now being reviewed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. (see the Plaintiffs-Appellants', Opening Brief). 

In an appeals court, documents and evidence to be reviewed are usually limited to those examined in the district court. In the dugong case, most of the documents and evidence examined in the district court came from the period before the DoD completed its environmental study and reached the no adverse impact conclusion in 2014.  The current critical status of the dugong, that is, no dugong has been observed in Henoko-Oura Bay since construction started and Dugong C has been entirely missing from the waters of Okinawa since 2015, was not taken into consideration in the district court (see Governor Takeshi Onaga's letter to DoD describing the current status of the dugong).  

It is not known whether the appeals court would take into consideration the Japanese government’s admission. Nonetheless, the whole situation presents a critical test to the very objectives and mechanism of the NHPA and the integrity of the U.S. judicial system as a whole.
International Union for Conservation of Nature and UNESCO World Natural Heritage Nomination
The Abe government’s admission presents a difficult test to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because, as an advisory body to the UNESCO World Heritage programme, IUCN is now involved in the nomination process of the “Northern part of Okinawa Island” for UNESCO World Natural Heritage status. 

On February 1, the Japanese Ministry of the Environment submitted to IUCN its nomination of Amami-Oshima Island, Tokunoshima Island, Northern Part of Okinawa Island, and Iriotomete Island for World Natural Heritage status (see the Nomination document). This nomination is the Japanese government’s second attempt in the last two years and could be the last one. In May 2018, the IUCN recommended that the nomination should be “deferred,” (see the IUCN Evaluation 2018) and the Japanese government withdrew the nomination. Among other things, the presence of the U.S. military’s Northern Training Area (NTA) located just next to the nominated area of the Northern Part of Okinawa Island presented difficult situations for IUCN to approve the nomination.

Henoko-Oura Bay is not included in the nominated area of “Northern Part of Okinawa Island.” However, Henoko-Oura Bay is just 10 miles away from the nominated area, and it is an integral part of the ecosystem of northern Okinawa Island. It is just inconceivable that the World Heritage nomination process (including IUCN experts’ field trip to the nominated area of the Northern Part of Okinawa Island) and driving piles to put 76,000 pillars into the seafloor in Henoko-Oura Bay take place simultaneously without each affecting the other. 

The Japanese government’s admission of the fragile seafloor and its relentless push for base construction in Henoko-Oura Bay is a stark reminder that when U.S. military base issues are involved, the Japanese environmental protection measures including EIA cease to function properly, and the Ministry of the Environment no longer behaves as a good steward of the environment. (To protect the honor of the Ministry, it should be emphasized that the Ministry did a great job getting the other four areas inscribed as World Natural Heritage sites at its first attempts and it is doing a good job in maintaining these sites well). 

The whole situation certainly tests the integrity of IUCN as the world’s trusted institution for the conservation of nature.  
U.S. and International Institutions Need to Tell the Japanese Government to Abandon the Destruction Plan
Save the Dugong Rally in SF
© Center for Biological Diversity
For more than twenty years, the people of Okinawa and members of the international civil society have been tenaciously urging the Japanese and U.S.  governments to abandon the base construction plan. Okinawa already has so many U.S. military bases on its soil. The environment of Henoko-Oura Bay, with some 5,300 marines species including 262 endangered species and peaceful communities with rich cultural tradition, is never an ideal site for a military base and training. It should a place for international collaboration for environmental protection and conservation. It is time for the U.S. government (the executive, legislative, and judicial branches) and IUCN to tell the Japanese government to abandon this absurd destruction plan.   

Thanks to suggestions by CDM, changes have been made to the original description of the Sand Compaction Pile Method in the first paragraph and similar changes have been also made in other paragraphs. I hope the changes help explain better how the method will put 76,000 sand pillars in the seafloor.  (Feb. 16, 2018)


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